First Impressions: The Challenge of Writing an Introduction
March 1, 2015
By Tori Link, Writing Tutor
Since this is one of our first entries about writing in our new blog, I thought it would be fitting to talk about introductions. Writing a good introduction is a challenge because it can be overwhelming. We all know the feeling of sitting down at the computer with a blank document, only for every intelligent thought we have ever had to completely escape us, leading us to just restate the question and summarize the subject. This feeling is more than just completely normal; it's totally human. We know what we need to say, but we don't always know the best way to say it or how to get people interested. To make your next introduction less stressful, here are a few strategies you can use to make your introduction interesting and insightful:
Start off with a quotation: This can be a tricky one to pull off just because it could be considered a bit of a cliche; we all remember those valedictorian graduation speeches that began with a Shakespeare or Thoreau quotation about greatness and success. If you can find an interesting quotation that is thought-provoking and related to your subject, however, go for it. It can be an interesting way to engage the reader with your topic. Don't use a dictionary definition as a quotation, though. It rarely intrigues your audience or provides insight for your topic, and your professor has seen it far too many times.
Include a personal anecdote: You can easily pull in your reader's attention by offering up the story of a personal life experience related to your topic. This is a great approach if you are concerned about establishing your ethos, your credibility as a writer and an authority on your subject. However, the downside is that this method is not suited for every assignment. Some papers will lend themselves better to this technique than other papers, and it can be difficult to use the first person in academic writing. If you are going to do this, it's a good idea to be clear about the assignment requirements first.
Explore the meaning of a key term: If you are writing a complex, argumentative paper that requires familiarity with a term that is central to your paper, your introduction is a great chance to explain the term to your reader and demonstrate your own understanding. This can be especially useful for philosophy or history papers: for instance, you may find yourself explaining utilitarianism in order to support your thesis about John Stuart Mill, or explaining democracy in order to support your thesis about Roman government. The key is to make sure that you don't simply define the term, but make note of the complexities you will examine in the body of your essay.
Challenge a popular misconception: This approach can be interesting if you are writing about a topic that many people are familiar with. For example, if you are writing a paper about the Vikings, you may start off describing a bearded man in a horned helmet, and then paint a more realistic picture of a Viking. You can use this misconception as a building block to explain the accuracy and originality of your thesis.
Write the introduction last: If you're absolutely stuck, and have no idea how to get rolling, but do have ideas for the body of your paper, write the introduction later. This will enable you to get into the flow of writing the main portion of the paper without being held up by your introduction. Besides, once you're fully familiar with your topic and what you specifically say about it in your paper, you're going to have a better idea of how to draw in your reader and what your reader will need to know in the introduction.
Using one of these methods can be a good start towards writing an insightful and thoughtful introduction to your paper. The true challenge of writing the introduction is the challenge of beginning to share your thoughts with the world. The introduction is how you can show your reader that what you are about to say will be meaningful, interesting, and worthwhile. This may seem like a lot of pressure for just a paragraph or two. However, the key is practicing and learning from experience. Try a new method, learn from your past mistakes, and figure out how to write the introduction that is best-suited for the unique challenges presented by your paper. It's a part of the growing process that we all undergo in order to become better writers, students, and thinkers. All you have to do is not be afraid to get started.